Collector's Corner: Quilts
By Michele Alice
Considering the amount of labor involved in their construction, American quilts have never been considered entirely practical. Produced for a variety of reasons - decorative throws, wedding gifts, commemoratives, memorials, bed covers, wall hangings, etc. - it is for the technical skills of their makers and for their aesthetic qualities that they are valued.
Though quilt tops and lightweight "summer quilts" (lacking the middle layer) are included in the category, technically, a quilt is a sandwich of a top layer, a bottom layer, and a filling, such as down, cotton or wool batting, polyester fiberfill, etc. The top layer can be plain or "pieced" (made of pieces of cloth sewn together to form a design) or "appliqued" (a plain cloth to which fabric pieces or other materials are sewn). Embroidery is often added.
Once the top layer is completed, various "quilt stitches" are used throughout to bond the three layers together and to prevent the filling from shifting. The quilt stitches add to the overall design and create the design on the back of the bottom layer.
Always treasured as family heirlooms, handmade quilts have increased in value along with the general interest in American folk artifacts. Antique quilts and contemporary "art" quilts (quilts made with no other purpose than as works of art) can command thousands of dollars in the collectibles market. Many are considered museum pieces.
So, is that quilt you picked up ten years ago at a church sale valuable? Is Great Great Great Aunt Martha's quilt packed away in a trunk in the attic a museum piece? Will that quilt you bought last week from a local quilter someday pay for your child's college education?
Quilt values are determined by several factors:
- Is the design one-of-a-kind, unique? All those identical "hand-made" quilts for sale by retailers like Sears and Penney's will probably never become valuable collectibles. Note that the term "hand-made" does not preclude machine stitching. It has, in fact, been estimated that up to 75% of all quilts made since 1851, when Isaac Singer introduced his improved version of the sewing machine, contain at least some machine stitching. If, on the other hand, the piece is labeled "hand-quilted" then the quilting stitches must be done by hand, not machine.
- If hand-sewn and/or embroidered, does the needlework reflect well on the skill of the quilter? Is stitching small and even? Are seams straight? Do pieces meet neatly?
- Is the quilt in good condition? Is it torn or stained? Are quilt stitches missing? Some condition issues, like yellowing of fabric or moth holes, can be expected in older quilts, especially if they have not been stored properly, but generally, the better the condition, the higher the value.
- Does the quilt have some important historical context? For example, was it made during a war to exhibit the patriotism of the quilter? Is it African-American or Native-American? Was it a presentation piece for some noted individual (local or national), or was it made to commemorate an important event?
- Of what materials was it made? Is it made of wool, cotton, silk, or satin? Are there printed patterns on any of the cloth pieces? Fabrics - dyes, weaves, prints - changed over time. A particular pattern or color may have been manufactured for a relatively short period, thus allowing a date to be attached to a quilt containing it.
- What is the quality of its overall design? Since aesthetics is a somewhat subjective enterprise, it helps to become familiar with pieces that are generally considered to be superior examples of quilt making. The following resources offer many examples of quilts that are considered either historically important or aesthetic masterpieces. They also offer a wealth of information on the making, collecting, and preservation of quilts.
Of course, it's not necessary for a quilt to be "collectible" to be enjoyed. All that's required is that you like it. Let your great-grandchildren worry about its market value.
"The American Quilt : A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950," by Roderick Kiracofe, Mary Elizabeth Johnson
"Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts," by Barbara Brackman
"Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide 1800-1960," by Eileen Trestain
The Newark Museum
Online tour of exhibition "Quilt Masterpieces from Folk Art to Fine Art."
PBS - Quilts
Resources include links to museums, organizations; great glossary.
Wealth of information including dating, cleaning, restoration, more.
The Quilt Index
Display of quilts. The search by category-style, time period, function-feature is extremely helpful.
Caring for Quilts
Avoid storing quilts folded in a trunk or drawer. If you must, use acid-free tissue between the folds. A better way is to roll the quilt around an archival-quality (acid-free) tube along with acid-free tissue paper. And when displaying a quilt, keep it out of direct sunlight.
About the author:
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more! Email her at makalice @ adelphia.net eBay ID: Malice9
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